In 1917, a 21-year-old Italian immigrant living in Chicago used some of his meager savings to rent some woodworking tools and a small workshop. There he built a simple wooden wagon and named it the Liberty Coaster, after the statue that had welcomed him to America four years earlier.
That wagon would eventually become the Radio Flyer, the iconic red wagon that has been one of the most enduring toys in history.
That’s just one of Chicago’s homegrown connections to the toy world explored in Elmhurst History Museum’s new exhibit, “Toys in the Hood,” opening April 26.
The exhibit unearths the Chicagoland roots of dozens of toys and games from Lincoln Logs, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, to Operation, prototyped by a student at University of Illinois and sold for $500 to the Chicago-based Marvin Glass toy company in 1965.
Kids can become “product testers” in the second-floor playroom, which is packed with current-day models of many of the toys featured the exhibit. They can play UNO (bought and mass-marketed by a Joliet funeral parlor owner), Mousetrap and Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots (both patented by the Marvin Glass company), and become a life-sized version of “Cavity Sam,” the Operation frontman poked and prodded by millions since the game premiered in 1965.
“I think there’s an expectation coming to (a history museum) that you’re just going to see some dusty stuff underneath cases and read some plaques,” says Lance Tawzer, the museum’s curator.”We knew that if you’re going to have kids walking through the exhibit and learning about toys, we were going to have to give them something to play with.”
The museum pulled from its own collection (which includes a curious pair of Kangru Springshus, a sort of pogo-stick sandal, from 1913), and borrowed from other regional history museums and several local toy collectors.
“It’s just fabulous,” John Spinello, who invented Operation in 1965 as an engineering student at the University of Illinois. “People have been playing with games like mine for years, but might not even know that they come from Chicago. It’s a little slice of history.”
The exhibit, like the museum, is free to the public. Its summer programming kicks off in earnest with the Toy Fair Extravaganza on June 26, where kids can enter a Lincoln Log building contest, play the games and meet Spinello, who lives in Bloomingdale, and other inventors.